To an Unknown God
And so Paul stood before them and said “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” This must be one of Paul’s most amusing one liners, a not so subtly veiled insult. One of Paul’s recurring themes is the idea that you can be too wise, too learned, or too religious, and in this way miss the Gospel being proclaimed. As Paul says elsewhere, “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” The Athenians were very ‘wise’, so wise that they had a god for everything: Zeus (the god of the Sky), Poseidon (the god of the seas), Demeter (the God of the land, and agriculture), Athena (the god of wisdom and reason), and on and on it went. They had all the bases covered. But what if they missed something? What if there was some god out there getting angry, not being worshipped because it had not been discerned? For this reason, some wise Athenians had an idea; they took a plinth, and instead of putting a statue of a god upon it, they left it empty, and simply wrote upon the plinth - ‘To an unknown god’.
I grew up with a dog – a Chow Chow – a big black fluffy dog with a dark purple tongue. I found her on our land when we lived in the states, or it’s probably more accurate to say, she found me. Our house out in the country was on stilts, and so my brother and I climbed under there a fair bit. It was good hiding spot. One time I was under there and I saw a huge black mass off in one corner. I was terrified; not too long before this happened, I had been told what to do in the event of encountering a bear. I put my hands out as wide as they could go, and I began slowly backing away. But it ran at me – I screamed – and then it started licking me. I realized it was a dog. It turned out it was a stray, it had cuts on its side, it was covered in cement, and it looked half starved. “Dad, can we keep it?” was the relentless theme of the next couple of days. And we did keep it. Eventually she was given the name ‘Osita’ which means ‘little cuddly bear’ in Spanish.
It’s said you can tell a lot about people by meeting their dog. Is their dog tiny and cute? Or is it a big massive dog, with big teeth? I think that tells you a lot about a person. Or rather, it tells you what people want you to think they’re like. And it’s the same with God. The God people profess to believe in tells you a lot about that person. As Feuerbach says, God is a projection of humanity; we create God in our own image. God becomes an idealized version of who we are, and therefore God becomes a way of legitimizing our worldview. On political or social issues, God is always conveniently on our side.
Religion at its best though should cut against this view of God. A religious person’s God at its best should not justify their ideology, or politics, or whatever, but rather challenge it, critique it. And this is of course the God that Jesus points to in the Gospels. The religious strata of Jesus’ day clearly defined who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, and Jesus challenged those assumptions. He said that God does not legitimize the status quo, but is critiquing it, he is turning it on its head. The first will be last, and the last first. As CS Lewis said, ‘A church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members’. We should always be seeking to reach the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, or the outcast. If we find ourselves in the ‘in’ group, we should be trying our hardest to surround ourselves with people in the ‘out’ group. I think this is why Paul goes on so much about being too wise, too learned, why he says, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” It’s because Paul was squarely in the learned camp. At a young age (in the first century) he was sent to Jerusalem to a rabbinical school, where he would have been exposed to classical literature, philosophy, and ethics. It’s like university academics today, the danger is that they become trapped in their ivory towers, too inward looking, too insular, and therefore alienated from the real world.
I came across a very good example of this in the William Ellery Channing sermon that we heard some of in last week’s reading, the one given at an ordination service. God becomes an idealized version of who we are. God becomes a way of legitimizing our worldview. And Channing falls into this trap in a remarkable way. Channing was a bit of an intellectual snob, overseeing his elite congregation in Boston, Harvard-trained and a son of well-connected Newport family; he most notably did not even speak to his Universalist contemporary Hosea Ballou when he started his ministry only a few streets away from Channing. This was almost entirely to do with social class. It’s funny to note from his sermon his thoughts concerning Pauls’ statements around ‘foolish things shaming the wise’. Channing explains these passages away. They don’t sit well with him and his erudite education. He explains that these passages are misunderstood because, of course, what was presumed learned in the 1st century was anything but. He spectacularly misses the point. By all means pursue reason and inquiry, it is paramount that a minister does so, but to elevate it to such a divine status is surely going to have an alienating effect. It will lead to impenetrable elitism, as indeed in Channing’s case it did.
Okay, now returning to our first reading: in Athens there are two things which stand out above all else, two things which tower over the city - the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and reason; and opposite the Parthenon, the Areopagus, a huge rock upon which Athens’ learned and political class would gather to debate, and pass judgment. We are told by Paul that in the first century the Areopagus was littered with plinths, with major and minor gods everywhere. This is a good metaphor for what we do today. We each conceive of God in our own minds; that God is an idealized version of ourselves, it acts to legitimize our place in the world, it legitimizes our values.
God can be thought of in one of four ways, that in a sense are on a continuum, from the most naive to the most spiritually mature. The most common way, the most common use of the word God, the God people are usually referring to when they ask, ‘do you believe in God?’ is the God above, the God who is a super being. God is an object we can think about, and to some degree get our heads around and understand. An alternative is a mystical understanding of God. God in this sense is not something that can be conceptualized. God is bigger, and beyond all our words. Whatever you say about God is limiting God. Or a third understanding of God is to think of God as the ground of being. This gets beyond the ‘me’ and ‘God’ distinction because God is all in all – everything that is, is God. So in this mode of thinking, the idea of loving God becomes nonsensical, because there is no object or thing which is God. Rather, we are to love our neighbor.
Or, finally, the fourth way of understanding God is to understand God as event. God is the name we give to that which calls us to greater love, greater freedom, greater hospitality; that which stops us from reducing the world to materialism and materialistic concerns. Faith, then, is about how you orientate yourself in the world, not about having certain views about the world. The truth is not in what I think, but rather in what I do. Paul says, ‘I found an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’. The God that we put on plinths in our mind, the God that hangs above creation, that legitimizes our worldview, these are false Gods. The true God is that which calls us beyond the material, beyond ourselves, to the ultimate cause - ever greater love, freedom, compassion, hope, hospitality…